On Monday Kanye West will release his fifth album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), and it may be terrific. And yet that won't matter nearly as much as it should, at least partly because of West's insistence on his own greatness.
Kanye West prefers his narratives linear, uninterrupted, undistressed. That’s why, when he’s been in the news media lately, his interlocutors have largely stayed out of his way. On everything from radio shows to record-label-sanctioned conference calls simulcast on the Internet, the pattern has been pretty much the same: West speaks until he is done, and only then does someone ask another question.
What all of these outlets have in common is that West’s words will be represented in full, without intrusion or interpretation. The website Jezebel recently compiled a five-minute video stitching together several of West’s televised outbursts and outlandish statements over the years. And while they’re mostly uncomfortable to watch, they’re motivated by a consistent, if peculiar, internal logic: that West isn’t to be disturbed.
When he’s comfortable, and not feeling cornered, he can be thoughtful, as he was during an extended visit this month with DJ Funkmaster Flex on the New York radio station Hot 97. “As a celebrity, as soon as you become a star, as soon as it pops off for you, at that point you stop growing,” he admitted.
It was a far cry from his experience on “Today” a couple of weeks later. He’d come to the program to respond to statements made by former President George W. Bush about West branding him a racist during the early days of Hurricane Katrina. (“In my moment of frustration, I didn’t have the grounds to call him a racist,” West said.)
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West took umbrage at the interviewer, Matt Lauer, for disturbing his responses with video footage.
“KANYE WEST MEDIA TRAINER QUITS AFTER DISASTROUS ‘TODAY’ INTERVIEW,” read a headline in The New York Post following the incident, which almost read like a headline from The Onion. First, West has a media trainer? And second, who would take that job?
Even his consistent success — 14 Grammy Awards, four platinum albums and more — has done little to change his public image. He’s certainly the only rapper to be insulted by two presidents — President Barack Obama took a swipe at him after he bum-rushed Taylor Swift at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
West was probably more offended, though, about Obama leaving his music off his iPod. When asked what artists he listened to, Obama did not name West.
On Monday West, who is 33, will release his fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), and it’s terrific — of course it’s terrific — a startlingly maximalist take on East Coast rap traditionalism. And yet that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should, at least partly because of West’s insistence on his own greatness. By not allowing for responses to his work other than awe, the value of the work itself is diminished; it becomes an object of admiration, not of study. Instead the focus is on the whole of West’s persona and character, which is more fractured and subject to a far wider range of responses. The result is that West becomes a polarizing public figure who happens to be the most artful pop musician of the day, not the other way around.
Nevertheless, West seems virtually incapable of making a bad record. He’s committed to pop, and he’s savvy and talented enough to make it great, every time. What’s more, for him to make something other than a universally accepted smash would be a thing that his ego couldn’t bear. Every Kanye West album, until the cancer of the world around him begins to encroach on the parts of his cerebral cortex that control his musical ear, will be excellent and huge. He’ll never have an idiosyncratic period.
Even at his most extreme, West isn’t an experimenter. His music is ornate, ostentatious, curious and vivacious. But risky? No. All of his fiddling is within recognized formulas. A producer as well as a rapper, West controls all of the major elements of his songs, unlike other artists who have to rely on their taste (or their record label’s taste) in outside producers or songwriters.
To work on this album he retreated to Hawaii, as he did during the making of his previous album. And West’s gravitational pull is such that he can import talent. Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj — they all made the trip to make music that will appear on the album. The spooky indie folky Justin Vernon from Bon Iver spoke of smoking marijuana with Rick Ross on one of his three sojourns to Hawaii to work with West, about as surreal a tableau as has been created in the making of any pop album this year.
For an egotist West isn’t scared of collaboration, in part because, like anyone who runs a good salon, he understands one can be measured by the depth of one’s guest list. That explains the most amusing bit in this album’s liner notes, from the credits for “All of the Lights”: “Additional Vocals: Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Elly Jackson (La Roux), Alicia Keys, Elton John, Fergie, Ryan Leslie, Drake, Alvin Fields & Ken Lewis.” Maybe three or four of these people are audibly identifiable on the song. But West likes collecting, and what good is a collection if it’s not on display?
There are several smaller pileups throughout “Fantasy” — the posse cuts “Monster” and “So Appalled,” among others — and while they don’t hold “Fantasy” back as an album, they do mean that many of its great moments aren’t strictly speaking West’s. Instead they’re performances he’s coaxed from others and assembled into something great.
That patchwork gnaws away at this album’s emotional impact. In part that’s why it can feel bloodless compared with West’s previous album, “808s & Heartbreak,” which was a consistent and unnerving meditation on personal loss. Similar feelings motivate many of the best songs on “Fantasy,” but his approach has changed: Rather than wallow in the feelings, he’s running roughshod over them, hoping to stomp them out.
He’s more capable of that than ever. He’s a better rapper than he’s ever been, as good as anyone he’s previously blatantly idolized or emulated. (His flow pattern on “Monster” recalls Juvenile’s “Ha,” a surprise.) In a couple of places he’s vulnerable: “The plan was to drink until the pain over/but what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” he raps on “Dark Fantasy.” Mostly, though, he’s boastful or piqued, modes he wears well.
He’s currently working on a collaborative album with Jay-Z: even a couple of years ago that would have only been conceivable with West producing, not rapping. But on the two songs here where Jay-Z appears, West at least matches him, maybe bests him. “Ain’t nobody cold as this/Do the rap and the track/Triple-double, no assist,” he raps on “Monster.”
On “Gorgeous” he sneers at the competition, “You blowing up?/That’s good/Fantastic,” maybe the iciest blow-off since Jay-Z’s “You got a little dough? That’s cool with me.”
And of course there’s the music, decidedly moody yet crisp, with dense orchestration juxtaposed against scraped-up drums and samples.
Often the songs sound like two ideas, one glossy and one raw, superimposed on each other. And West finds different ways to sound phenomenal — “Dark Fantasy,” produced in part by the RZA, recalls vintage Wu-Tang Clan; “Devil in a New Dress” is reminiscent of the slowed-down soul from West’s 2004 debut, “The College Dropout”; “Blame Game” samples the experimental electronic artist Aphex Twin; and when its drums kick in, “All of the Lights” sounds like dueling marching bands.
When West began releasing songs on the Internet each Friday this summer, his direction wasn’t clear and the songs lacked an obvious thematic or sonic link. His commitment to transparency on the Internet, though, both in releasing the songs and in discussing them on Twitter, laid bare his creative process, allowing the public to watch him create in real time. Many of the songs on “Fantasy” were released free this summer, but West has changed them in incremental ways — rerecorded verses, added new lyrics, made amendments to the beat, and so on.
Again, this is how West has come to prefer to work: more output than input. His Twitter feed is robust, an easy source of absurd quotables. (“I feel very alone very used very tortured very forced very misunderstood very hollow very very misused.”) But they reflect only how he wishes to be seen, even if his grasp on self-protection is weak.
His persistent paranoia about how he is portrayed reflects, perhaps admirably, a belief in the power of media. Words sting, he knows, and whether he participates or not, a torrent of them are headed his way in the coming weeks.
His attempts to take back the narrative are often unsuccessful in the face of a media machine racing in the opposite direction, something West witnessed up close during the various stages of the Bush debacle, which culminated in Bush calling the rapper’s Katrina-related outburst “one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.” Speaking ill of Bush remains the bravest thing West has done, the one moment where his inability to shut up resulted in widespread embrace. But turning Bush sympathizer felt less like a sign of growth than a desire to be seen as something other than the obdurate loudmouth he’s spent years becoming and rarely regretted. Whether his idea, or that of a hapless media coach, it was unnatural.
And also inconsistent with the certainty he displays everywhere else, including on this album. “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,” West raps on “Power,” beginning at self-loathing but ending up at indignation, transferring blame from himself to others.
West declined to be interviewed by The New York Times this month. And he has been scarce in print media; he appeared on a recent cover of XXL magazine, for which he wrote his own cover story and was the “creative director” of his own section of the magazine. Apart from “Today” he’s mostly promoted this album via a string of interviews with radio stations. He hasn’t been properly challenged.
In the future maybe he’ll become like Bono, giving one or two interviews per album cycle, never revealing too much, waiting around long past the point of appearing intriguing.
Except that West could never be like Bono. West isn’t content without feedback; his effort is valueless without response. Plenty of artists insist their work speaks for them, but as spectacular as his work is and likely will continue to be, West will never be one of them. A blowhard with subpar records wouldn’t merit the trouble. West is someone worth interrogating, and that’s the highest compliment of all.